How Bad Can Solar Storms Get?

Our Sun regularly pelts the Earth with all kinds of radiation and charged particles. Just how bad can these solar storms get?

In today’s episode, we’re going to remind you how looking outside of the snow globe can inspire your next existential crisis.

You guys remember the Sun right? Look how happy that little fella is. The Sun is our friend! Life started because of the Sun! Oooh, look, the Sun has a baby face! It’s a beautiful, ball of warmth and goodness, lighting up our skies and bringing happiness into our hearts.

It’s a round yellow circle in crayon. Very stable and firmly edged. Occasionally drawn with a orange lion’s mane for coronal effects. Nothing to be afraid, right?

Wake up sheeple. It’s time to pull back the curtain of the marketing world, big crayon fridge art and the children’s television conspiracy of our brightly glowing neighborhood monstrosity. That thing is more dangerous than you can ever imagine.

You know the Sun is a nuclear reaction right next door. Like it’s right there. RIGHT THERE! It’s a mass of incandescent gas, with a boiling bubbling surface of super-heated hydrogen. It’s filled with a deep yellow rage, expressed every few days by lashing out millions of kilometers into space with fiery death tendrils and blasts of super radiation.

The magnetic field lines on the Sun snap and reconnect, releasing a massive amount of radiation and creating solar flares. Solar plasma constrained in the magnetic loop is instantly released, smashed together and potentially generating x-ray radiation.

“Big deal. I get x-rayed all the time.” you might think. We the mighty humans have mastered the X-ray spectrum! Not so fast puny mortal. Just a single x-ray class flare can blast out more juice than 100 billion nuclear explosions.

 In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO
In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

Then it’s just a quick 8 minute trip to your house, where the radiation hits us with no warning. Solar flares can lead to coronal mass ejections, and they can happen other times too, where huge bubbles of gas are ejected from the Sun and blasted into space. This cosmic goo can take a few hours to get to us, and are also excellent set-ups for nocturnal emission and dutch oven jokes.

Astronomers measure the impact of a solar storm on the Earth using a parameter called DST, or “disturbance storm time”. We measure the amount that the Earth’s protective magnetosphere flexes during a solar storm event. The bigger the negative number, the worse it is.

If we can see an aurora, a geomagnetic storms in the high altitudes, it measures about -50 nanoteslas. The worst storm in the modern era, the one that overloaded our power grid in 1989, measured about -600 nanoteslas.

The most potent solar storm we have on record was so powerful that people saw the Northern Lights as far south as Cuba. Telegraph lines sparked with electricity and telegraph towers caught on fire. This was in 1859 and was clearly named by Syfy’s steampunk division. This was known as the Carrington Event, and estimated in the -800 to -1750 nanotesla range.

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day - a
A spectacular green and red aurora photographed early this morning March 17, 2015, from Donnelly Creek, Alaska. Credit: Sebastian Saarloos

So, how powerful do these things need to be to cook out our meat parts? The good news is contrary to my earlier fear mongering, the most powerful flare our Sun can generate is harmless to life on Earth.

Don’t let your guard down, the Sun is still horribly dangerous. It’ll bake us alive faster than you can say “Hansel und Gretel”. Assuming you can drag that phrase out over a billion years. As far as flares go, and so long as we stay right here, we’ll be fine. We might even see a nice aurora in the sky.

For those of you who use technology on a regular basis, you might not be so lucky. Powerful solar storms can overload power grids and fry satellites. If the Carrington Event happened now, we’d have a lot of power go out, and a small orbital scrapyard of dead satellites.

Astronauts outside the Earth, perhaps bouncing around on the Moon, or traveling to Mars would be in a universe of trouble without a good method of shielding.

The solar flares that the Sun can produce is minuscule compared to other stars out there. In 2014, NASA’s Swift satellite witnessed a flare that generated more than 10,000 times more energy than the most powerful solar flare ever seen.

Solar flare on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: NASA
Solar flare on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: NASA

For a brief moment, the surface of the red dwarf star DG Canum Venaticorum lit up hotter than 200 million degrees Celsius. That’s 12 times hotter than the center of the Sun. A blast that powerful would have scoured all life from the face of the Earth. Except the future colony of tardigrade descendants. Remember, the water bears are always watching.

Young red dwarf stars are renowned for these powerful flares, and this is one of the reasons astronomers think they’re not great candidates for life. It would be hard to survive blast after blast of radiation from these unruly stars. Alternately, planets around these stars are could be living terrariums inspired by the Gamma World RPG.

Breathe easy and don’t worry. Perhaps the Sun is our friend, and it truly does have our best interests at heart.

It’s not a big fan of our technology, though, and it’s ready to battle alongside us when the robot revolution begins. Oh, also, wear sunscreen, as the Sun’s brand of love isn’t all that different from Doctor Manhattan.

Have you ever seen an aurora display? Tell us a cool story in the comments below.

New Mission: DSCOVR Satellite will Monitor the Solar Wind

Solar wind – that is, the stream of charged electrons and protons that are released from the upper atmosphere of the Sun – is a constant in our Solar System and generally not a concern for us Earthlings. However, on occasion a solar wind shock wave or Coronal Mass Ejection can occur, disrupting satellites, electronics systems, and even sending harmful radiation to the surface.

Little wonder then why NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have made a point of keeping satellites in orbit that can maintain real-time monitoring capabilities. The newest mission, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is expected to launch later this month.

A collaborative effort between NASA, the NOAA, and the US Air Force, the DSCOVR mission was originally proposed in 1998 as a way of providing near-continuous monitoring of Earth. However, the $100 million satellite has since been re-purposed as a solar observatory.

In this capacity, it will provide support to the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which is charged with providing advanced warning forecasts of approaching geomagnetic storms for people here on Earth.

Illustration showing the DSCOVR satellite in orbit L1 orbit, located one million miles away from Earth. At this location, the satellite will be in the best position to monitor the constant stream of particles from the sun, known as solar wind, and provide warnings of approaching geomagnetic storms caused by solar wind about an hour before they reach Earth. Credit: NOAA
Illustration showing the DSCOVR satellite in L1 orbit, located 1.5 million km  (930,000 mi) away from Earth. Credit: NOAA

These storms, which are caused by large-scale fluctuations in solar wind, have the potential of disrupting radio signals and electronic systems, which means that everything from telecommunications, aviation, GPS systems, power grids, and every other major bit of infrastructure is vulnerable to them.

In fact, a report made by the National Research Council estimated that recovering from the most extreme geomagnetic storms could take up to a decade, and cost taxpayers in the vicinity of $1 to $2 trillion dollars. Add to the that the potential for radiation poisoning to human beings (at ground level and in orbit), as well as flora and fauna, and the need for alerts becomes clear.

Originally, the satellite was scheduled to be launched into space on Jan. 23rd from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. However, delays in the latest resupply mission to the International Space Station have apparently pushed the date of this launch back as well.

According to a source who spoke to SpaceNews, the delay of the ISS resupply mission caused scheduling pressure, as both launches are being serviced by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral. However, the same source indicated that there are no technical problems with the satellite or the Falcon 9 that will be carrying it into orbit. It is now expected to be launched on Jan. 29th at the latest.

Credit: NOAA
SpaceX will be providing the launch service for DSCOVR, which is now expected to be launched by the end of Jan aboard a Falcon 9 rocket (pictured here). Credit: NOAA

Once deployed, DSCOVR will eventually take over from NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite, which has been in providing solar wind alerts since 1997 and is expected to remain in operation until 2024. Like ACE, the DSCOVER will orbit Earth at Lagrange 1 Point (L1), the neutral gravity point between the Earth and sun approximately 1.5 million km (930,000 mi) from Earth.

From this position, DSCOVR will be able to provide advanced warning, roughly 15 to 60 minutes before a solar wind shockwave or CME reaches Earth. This information will be essential to emergency preparedness efforts, and the data provided will also help improve predictions as to where a geomagnetic storm will impact the most.

These sorts of warnings are essential to maintaining the safety and integrity of infrastructure, but also the health and well-being of people here on Earth. Given our dependence on high-tech navigation systems, electricity, the internet, and telecommunications, a massive geomagnetic storm is not something we want to get caught off guard by!

And be sure to check out this video of the DSCOVR mission, courtesy of the NOAA:

Further Reading: NOAA